| Second Dance |

Second Dance: Chapter 29

Reuven Stagler had a different vision for Alameda Gardens and its shul


None of these calls were easy, but some were impossible.

Rabbi Klarberg was polite, even warm, but completely disinterested. “Look, Mr. Stagler, forgive me for being blunt, but you seem sincere about helping your kehillah. The sort of rav you’re looking for — the perfect pedigree, the perfect experience, and the perfect age — doesn’t exist. The ones who already lead a kehillah aren’t usually looking for that sort of workload and achrayus, they’re a bit tired. At least I am,” he said and laughed easily, which made Reuven more determined to convince this man to give them a try.

But Rabbi Klarberg wasn’t budging. “You need someone fresh and young, someone who will throw themselves into the task with excitement. Sounds like there’s work to be done. Go for someone young.”

Reuven shook his head in frustration. They had tried it. For a month, they’d had a succession of eager young talmidei chachamim walking in for Shabbos davening from one neighborhood or another. Reuven could see these candidates’ faces as they took in the scene — the large, spacious shul and big crowd — the way they reassured themselves that the walk hadn’t really been that long, that this was a serious, mature tzibbur who would be interested in hearing what they could offer, and that it would be short-term, one job leads to another after all, and then they could get a job that really interested them.

It never worked. Inevitably, once the derashah was over and Reuven had smilingly sat through the small talk at kiddush and then walked the would-be rav to the edge of the development and offered a little help with directions — if you cut through the parking lot behind the kitchen supply place you could save five minutes — he would walk back home with a sinking feeling.

Not once had there been any connection. People in their sixties, worried about married children who always seemed so tired and vacant, wondering how their grandchildren would remember them, concerned about investments meant to ensure a peaceful retirement, didn’t have much in common with a 40-year-old superstar who had delivered a brilliant shiur on the various shitos of poskim in regard to techeiles b’zman hazeh. It had been interesting, but none of these men were really invested. They had all joined different shuls, at a different time, given heart and soul — and now they were retired. They weren’t going to connect emotionally to a new rav in this new neighborhood in a brand-new shul that still smelled of paint. Even when it came to money, though many of them had the ability to give, they weren’t that inclined.

Reuven understood. They had all already given, served on boards and committees, gotten emotionally involved in a hiring or firing, and they were done.

But Reuven Stagler had a different vision for Alameda Gardens and its shul. He wanted a rav whom they would not just tolerate but love. A rav who would rouse old enthusiasm and connect with the people emotionally. Reuven had gotten a glimpse at Heshy Brucker’s Leil Shishi gathering and seen the faces of the men around the table colored by real passion.

He wanted a rav who could do that too, and he would find the right person.

“I appreciate this, Rabbi Klarberg,” he said now. “Your guidance is valuable. But we tried younger rabbanim and our oilem didn’t really connect. I feel like we need a rav who gets where we’re at, who understands our reality, even if most of the job is saying shiurim.”

“Well, to be perfectly frank,” said Rabbi Klarberg, who seemed to be a bit more engaged now, “it would help if you were ready to pay a normal salary. What you’re offering isn’t very impressive and will convince no one to take the job.”

Reuven agreed on this point. The Lauer brothers checked in every few days, very on top of the rabbinic search. But when he mentioned that there were new houses being built on York, at the very edge of the development, and if they were ready to give one of the houses to a rav, they would have a much easier time attracting someone, they changed the conversation.

Yes, the Lauers agreed, they needed a rav, they had promised it in the advertising, and it was a big part of what they were selling, but none of the other developments were giving free houses, and why should they? There were enough members in the shul to come up with a respectable salary, they believed.

True, Reuven had explained in return, but the young rabbanim didn’t really work for them, and to entice a rav to leave a successful kehillah in New York or Baltimore or Chicago or wherever, a house was necessary.

That’s why Rabbi Klarberg was so perfect. He had been a rav for 25 years, and the people in his kehillah loved him, from what Reuven heard. His wife had died two years earlier, and he was remarrying a woman who lived two blocks away from Alameda Gardens. It would be perfect.

Reuven felt like he had an opening and he jumped in. “The salary is negotiable, of course, and besides, that was what we were offering someone starting out. For an experienced rav, we could do better.”

“I hear, that’s good,” Rabbi Klarberg said. “Look, I don’t think it’s for me, I’m starting a new life with a new person, and that will take enough work, you know? I don’t see that I’ll have the ability to do this as well.”

There was something in the rav’s voice that moved Reuven, the honest, vulnerable way he’d said, “a new life with a new person.” Reuven took his chance.

“But don’t you see?” he said. “That because you’re dealing with reality, you’re davka the rav we need?”

Rabbi Klarberg was quiet, either because he was contemplating what Reuven said or because he had no idea what Reuven meant. Reuven realized that he sounded like Heshy Brucker, all touchy-feely and “you’re the rav we need” type of stuff. He wished he could end the conversation right then, simply hanging up and hoping never to meet Rabbi Klarberg again.

“What do you mean by that?” Rabbi Klarberg asked, shocking Reuven.

“I mean that there is certain need our kehillah has that only certain rabbanim would understand. Look, there’s a woman here that my wife is friendly with, nice people. The wife recently told my wife that it’s okay here, but not what they imagined. They’re lonelier than they thought they would be, and they miss their friends from Staten Island. My wife is trying to explain to them that things take time, nothing happens in three months, and they have to let it settle.”

Reuven paused, then forged on, worried about losing the moment. “But you see, if they had a rav who was at a similar stage, adapting to change too, then they would have someone to speak with who could help them.”

It was quiet again, and Rabbi Klarberg said, “I hear. I hear. What takeh would you offer in terms of remuneration?”

Reuven was impressed by the term, which he thought was much more refined than money.

He wouldn’t wait for the Lauer brothers to come to him, he thought. Instead, he would go to them in person and work this out. This decision, more than any other, would decide the future of the neighborhood.

“I’m on it,” he said.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)

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